It's been over 50 years since Dune was published, but its universe has hit a new peak. With the 2021 film taking home six Oscars and the latest game Dune: Spice Wars having been released in early access earlier this year, Dune interest is at an all-time high. While the novel is considered one of the major contributors to the sci-fi genre, the games it spawned led to the creation of the RTS genre, which was first established by Dune II.
Despite the novel's epic story and complex characters, it spends a lot of time establishing the overarching political and economic systems at play. For the games that would be inspired by this universe, developers spent a lot of time creating intricate mechanics and in-depth gameplay revolving around the major events going on in the background of the main story. From the first game in 1992 to the latest in 2022, these games based on Dune continued to evolve, resulting in one of the most faithful and accurate depictions of the novel's universe to date.
Why Dune: Spice Wars Is the Pinnacle of Dune RTS
Several months after the release of the 2021 film and over two decades since the last game based on the Dune universe, Dune: Spice Wars appears on Early Access. The developers at Shiro Games have shown their dedication to the source material, both on the page and in the games, to bring us this gem. Though only available for PC, it makes the most of the machine's capabilities.
Unlike all the previous games, Spice Wars doesn't try to tell a story and simply challenges players to become the best. With strong RTS mechanics and 4X details, you choose one of the four canon bodies to establish your spice harvesting empire, including House Atreides, House Harkonnen, the Smugglers, and the Fremen. Each one has its own strengths and weakness, which play effectively into the game's lore.
The gameplay is specific down to its resources, facilities, and connected units. Like real-world economics, focus too much on fixing one thing and you neglect another thing. Then, like a huge arrangement of dominoes, everything falls. On top of that, you need to keep favor with the overarching governing body while trying to keep your political rivals off your back and out of your empire. In addition to the core gameplay of building your spice network, a lot is going on in the background involving taxes, earning hegemony, and raising your influence to affect game-changing votes.
What really puts Dune: Spice Wars on top is that it bases the whole game around the source of all the conflict in the Dune universe: the spice. Known as melange, this spice has allowed humans to achieve incredible feats in technology and biology. As such, there are entire organizations dedicated to harvesting it. Due to its tremendous value and significance, anyone one who is able to accumulate a huge amount would have significant financial power, which could easily be converted to political power. The competition that arises between the Houses is fierce and prevalent in the book, and it's the basis of this faithful game.
However, before Shiro Games would make an attempt at making one, other developers would try their hand bringing Dune into the gaming world. Since it was not an easy task, the games would evolve on a curve as new mechanics came into play and an entire genre with them. Even though Dune is still fresh in the public's mind, its gaming journey started in the '90s.
The Birth Of Dune Games and RTS: Dune 1992 and Dune II
It wasn't until the '90s that some developers at Cryo Interactive decided to bring the Dune universe into the digital age. PC gaming was on the rise, the Sega Genesis was still competing with other consoles, and Dune would be released on both. Though limited by the graphics at the time, the game was able to present a very vibrant world with detailed NPCs and a UI that was easy to navigate.
Trying its hardest to follow the novel's story, the player is put into the role of Paul Atreides, the main protagonist of the series. Gameplay is split into two parts: A narrative-adventure segment and a strategy segment. In the former, your goal is to visit iconic locations and talk with key characters in order to get their aid and progress through the story. This affects the latter, which involves setting up areas for spice production as well as acquiring troops in order to protect your operations. Though clunky and very slow-paced, the game was complex for its time and served as a prototype for what would eventually become the RTS genre.
The same year that first game came out, an unrelated sequel made by Westwood Studios would also be released on PC and Sega Genesis. Unlike the first game, Dune II was mainly based on the 1984 film Dune rather than the book. Even so, it took liberties with the story, with the most notable being the inclusion of a third non-canon House Ordos which would come to be featured in other games.
It also completely removed the adventure-game aspect, deciding to focus entirely on RTS mechanics. With a layout similar to the first Civilization games, players were given a zoomed-out map of Arrakis to explore from their main base of operations. It had a very severe fog of war element that encouraged players to send out as many scouts as possible to find spice fields and places to establish camps. It was this attention to detail and complexity that would establish Dune's RTS legacy.
Dune 2000 And Emperor: Battle For Dune Followed Before Frank Herbert's Dune Tanked
Much like other games and films at the time, the third Dune title tried to market the turn of the century two years before it happened. Westwood Studios returns as one of the primary developers, this time teaming up with Intelligent Games to bring this game to PC and PlayStation. It served as a way to reboot many of the elements of Dune II such as House Ordos while telling a new story through full-motion video (FMV).
This time, the goal is simple: make more spice than anyone else. It's interesting to note that this game shares a lot of visual and gameplay similarities with Blizzard's Starcraft, which came out several months before it. As such, it continues to be RTS-centric, but this time the player is close enough to see the details of their units and buildings. You're tasked with constructing the proper facilities to produce troops, harvesters, and resources to maintain your system. Combat was stepped up as AI and players would attack each other's bases in an attempt to delay their progress. From this point on, Dune games had a greater emphasis on fighting in addition to management.
In the early 2000s, computer graphics entered an unusual phase which absorbed the Dune series. The duo of Westwood Studios and Intelligent Games returned equipped with new hardware and software to bring us Emperor: Battle For Dune on PC. Along with all the sharp graphics, there came even more detailed FMV to try and draw players into the reality of the game.
This entry continues the story of the previous games with an even simpler goal: eliminate the opposition. In this so-called "war of assassins," players play as one of three same Houses from the previous games. Using the resources on planet Arrakis, players are aiming to make an army strong enough to wipe out the competition. Continuing the zoomed-in perspective of Dune 2000, this game was finally able to render buildings and units in low-poly 3D glory. Visuals are solid, fights are colorful, and the RTS mechanics feel smoother. However, the next game would be a profound shift from the established genre.
For every rise there comes a fall, and Frank Herbert's Dune is that fall. Released in the same year as the moderately popular Emperor: Battle For Dune, this title was created by the returning Cryo Interactive and newcomer Widescreen Games. It was created to take advantage of the next generation of gaming brought about by the PlayStation.
This is the only Dune game that is set entirely from a third-person perspective and for good reason. Once again, players are put into the role of the main character Paul as he completes missions drawn directly from the main story. It involves a lot of walking around, awkwardly close dialogue interactions, and clunky combat mechanics. It is easily the worst-ranked game in the series because it stepped away from Dune's conventions.
Frank Herbert's Dune tried to turn Paul into an action hero when that's not what he's about at all. Fighting individuals and battling sandworms are small potatoes compared to the main course that is the economic, political, and environmental theming. The result led to a critical and financial failure so bad that it caused Cryo Interactive to go bankrupt a year later as discussed by James T. Kelly in Calling the Makers: An Unofficial History of Dune Games.
Thankfully, Spice Wars Restored Dune to RTS Glory
The newest game is doing critically well, receiving praise from players and critics alike, since it became available and is one of the more fleshed-out Early Access games out there. Much like the novel it draws from, Dune: Spice Wars is not something where you can dive in at the deep end. It requires you to spend a lot of time taking in all the details and really seeing how all of your actions relate to each other. You'll likely lose several times before you start to get it, but Dune is not for the faint of heart. You'll need to make tough decisions in order to keep your operation healthy all while taking aggressive actions against your opponents both politically and discreetly. However, once everything finally clicks, you'll see all the pieces start to come together in a game that glimpses the height of Dune's gaming potential.